CORVALLIS - Robin Rose, a forestry professor at Oregon State University, says he has never before done reforestation work in a land riddled by such devastation. Rose recently returned from Afghanistan, where he worked on forestry and agricultural development as part of the Afghanistan Freedom Support Act of 2002. The reality of the terrors Afghans have been through, he said, is beyond the understanding of most people in America, and he wanted to help.
"I felt compelled to try to help the people of Afghanistan after seeing pictures of the ecological devastation the country has sustained," Rose said. "The stripping of most of the trees during the Soviet Union's occupation in order to eradicate the hiding places of opposition fighters, combined with years of drought and erosion, has reduced the country to a barren wasteland."
"The land is in desperate need of reforestation," said Rose, "but you need experts to come in and train the Afghan foresters on how to grow and plant trees in a harsh environment."
Rose's extensive knowledge of reforestation issues allowed him to provide that expertise, but the working conditions are tough and the progress is often slow. "I have been all around the world, and I have never seen so much lead and expended ammunition as in the Paghman Nursery where I was working," said Rose. "You can't kick the soil without seeing shells and antiaircraft rounds."
The Afghanistan Freedom Support Act encourages using the technical expertise of professionals at U.S. land grant universities to help Afghanistan develop a sustainable agricultural base.
As part of that program, last year Rose participated in the start of the Afghan Conservation Corps, or ACC. For two weeks he provided workshops for Afghan foresters that focused on conservation and the environment. He taught them how to plant trees, rehabilitate nurseries, and educated them about the issues of soil stabilization and conservation.
Beyond the realm of reforestation, Rose said he listens to criticisms about U.S. operations in Afghanistan, and feels sadness - the sadness you can only feel if you have been to Afghanistan and experienced the relief our help can bring to a terror-stricken people.
"Our Army and Marines are up against something that is unreal to fathom," said Rose.
Many Americans tend to compare what they hear happening in Afghanistan to the freedom and safety that we know in America, said Rose. Until recently, under the rule of Al Quaida and the Taliban, that did not exist in Afghanistan.
"Now there are no more Friday meetings at the Kabul soccer field in which women are beheaded, no more public floggings leaving people useless for life," said Rose. "There's still fear, it's still a combat zone, but now at least the food is plentiful and a woman can disagree with her husband without being beaten."
The land is still one of violent conflict, Rose said, and the armed forces face extreme risks. Most of the Afghan public, he said, is supportive of the military presence and welcomes the order that it brings to the country.
"The Afghans can't get enough of what we can bring to them, they are just thrilled to have us there," said Rose. "When you are physically there, and you see the people's reactions, they are thanking God that someone is finally helping them."
The success of the program Rose worked with is evident not only in the projected budget increase for the next year for the ACC, but in the reaction Rose saw in the people.
"The Afghan people I met there were super to work with, very pleasant and hungry for knowledge," said Rose. "It's truly wonderful to see them coming back together as a people after everything they've been through."
Rose was especially affected by the vast strides made in women's rights in the Middle East. One particularly poignant moment that remains with him is when he saw a woman raise up the front of her burqa to reveal a huge smile underneath.
"We can't even conceive of what that means to her," said Rose. "That would've been a death offense for her under the Taliban. Not being afraid seems so simple, yet we take it for granted in America."